Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at 30: a joyless hit that should stay in the 90s

Robin Hood doesn’t have to be like Errol Flynn, and perhaps it’s a fool’s game to try. But the 1938 swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood, shot in truly glorious Technicolor, was not only the defining film of Flynn’s career, but the standard of who we understand Sir Robin of Locksley to be – a rebel, a romantic, a jester, a happy warrior for justice and, above all, unburdened and light on his feet. Flynn always had a great sense of himself as an entertainer, and his Robin has those qualities, too. It wasn’t enough merely to set things right for the poor and oppressed, and win the hand of Maid Marian. He had to do it with style.

So again, Robin Hood doesn’t have to be like Errol Flynn. But he shouldn’t resemble an old Buick, either.

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Thirty years ago, it hardly mattered. Kevin Costner was the biggest star in Hollywood, still collecting money and plaudits for Dances with Wolves well into 1991, getting the best of Goodfellas in a best picture race that was, frankly, not that much of a nail-biter. The director-star’s western epic had been dismissed as a vanity project, “Kevin’s Gate”, right up until the moment critics and audiences embraced it wholeheartedly, and he was in the middle of a run of late-80s hits that included The Untouchables, No Way Out, and a pair of baseball movies, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, that still inspire arguments over which is the best ever made about the sport. (It’s Bull Durham.)

And so when Costner teamed up with his friend Kevin Reynolds, the director who had made his career by casting the then-unknown actor in 1985’s Fandango, for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, no one was going to question whether he was right for the lead role. The fact that the film was second only to Terminator 2: Judgment Day at the box office made him right for the lead role, despite the objections of critics who, by and large, strongly believed he was woefully miscast. Other than the feathery resplendence of Costner’s golden locks – between him, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Alan Rickman, the film deserved an Oscar for Most Hairstyling – there was no lightness to him at all in the role. His lack of an English accent, which is really more like a lack of commitment to any accent in particular, got the most attention, but it’s a much more comprehensively stilted performance.

Then again, Flynn would have been out of place in this conception of Robin Hood, which now seems like an innocent precursor to the “dark, gritty reboot” versions of classic characters that have popped up so frequently in the 21st century. (Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe would try an even grimier, history-minded take on Robin Hood in 2010, to similarly desultory ends.) Costner’s battering ram of a performance is of a piece with Reynolds’s dark, gory, chaotic action-adventure, a film that more or less follows the legend by the numbers, but seems determined to make it as joyless as possible. This was emphatically not going to be your grandpa’s Robin Hood.

The fun begins in the Third Crusade, with Costner’s Robin escaping the clutches of Ayyubid torturers in Jerusalem along with a Moor named Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who solemnly vows to repay Robin for saving his life, and Peter Dubois, a friend who dies from a stray arrow in the process. After swearing to Peter that he’ll protect his sister Marian (Mastroantonio), Robin makes the long journey home to England, Azeem in tow, not knowing how dramatically things have changed since he left. With the King of England, Richard the Lionheart, away from the throne, the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham (Rickman) has moved to fill the power vacuum. The first step was to kill Robin’s father at Locksley.

OK, so the fun doesn’t begin there. But surely it begins in Sherwood Forest, where the once-rich Robin and Azeem find a home among the outlaws and exiles who have sought refuge in the wild? Not really, though the camaraderie that develops between Robin and new friends like Little John and Friar Tuck have a boisterousness that at least shifts the tone a little, and the community they build in the trees has a big-budget Swiss Family Robinson look to it that’s undeniably inviting. The natural majesty of the great outdoors – which, of course, includes a secluded swimming hole where Marian catches a glimpse of Kevin’s gate – squares nicely with the gray facades of English castles, putting even more distance between this film and Flynn’s half studio-bound original.

Just as the Sheriff of Nottingham fills the vacuum left by King Richard, Rickman must have sensed he had a charisma vacuum to occupy, because his performance sucks every bit of oxygen out of the room. There’s more than a little residue left over from his signature performance as Hans Gruber in Die Hard two years earlier, and it’s hard to know whether to praise him for stepping up so zestfully or damn him for representing the film’s basest, ugliest instincts. He barges into every room like a European super-thief in danger of losing his bearer bonds, and the film makes a running “joke” of the sheriff’s practice of raping young maidens. (A low-angle shot of him forcing Marian’s legs apart after a coerced wedding ceremony is of unforgivably poor taste.)

Still, audiences loved Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the time, which testifies to Costner’s star power and the endurance of the mythology, and no shortage of commercial calculation, including some larger-than-expected 12th-century pyrotechnics and a Bryan Adams hit, (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, that builds off of Michael Kamen’s score. With all the radio and MTV play that Adams’s song was getting, the romance between Robin and Marian has a Pavlovian quality to it – a few recognizable bars have the power to elicit a swoon.

The hard PG-13 edges of the film signaled a general shift in taste toward a darker sort of summer blockbuster than the previous decade, presaged by Tim Burton’s Batman and confirmed by Terminator 2 a few weeks later. There was no room for a suave, fleet-footed gentleman in tights any more. The kingdom of Hollywood was permanently seized by the beefcakes.